2017-05-05

Crow Smarts

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by Neil Godfrey

It’s been a long time since I bought a children’s book — until today. Or at least it arrived today. I heard about it on a science show, Kids book goes inside the crow’s smart bird brain, and could not resist.

Look at this:

The New Caledonian crow shapes a hooked tool to extract grubs from logs.

And this:

The damn clever thing shapes another digging tool by tapering it so that it has a thick end for holding and a pointy end for digging into crevices.

The crows here have straight beaks, not slightly curved ones, and eyes more to the front of their heads than do other species of crow. Since these traits enable a more efficient use of tools (more difficult to work them with a curved beak and harder to get the aim right with eyes further apart) it appears that tool use has favoured the evolution of these smarter crows.

If like me you want to catch up with what the kids are reading and learning, check it out….


2017-05-04

How John the Baptist was Reshaped by each Gospel

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by Neil Godfrey

The following is adapted from a 1975 article by Morton S. Enslin, John and Jesus. Enslin argues that the evidence in the gospels does not support the common view that Jesus began his career as a disciple of John the Baptist. In fact Enslin argues that when we examine the gospel narratives in sequence it is far more probable that the paths of John and Jesus never crossed. 

Enslin, relying upon the account of John in Josephus, believes John was a preacher who stood completely apart from Christian origins. This presumed historical John was considered to be a powerful threat to the authorities who had him executed.

From this starting point Enslin sees the evangelists writing alongside an independent John the Baptist movement and each one (at least after Mark) in succession contrives in his own way to make this John more “Christian”.

The Gospel of Mark

John suddenly appears without explanation. He is preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

John did baptize . . . and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. (Mark 1:4)

Jesus appears and is baptized.

There is no hint that John recognizes Jesus as the greater one who is to come after him.

After emerging from the water God announces to Jesus (no one else apparently hears) that he is his son:

Thou art my beloved son…. (Mark 1:11)

read more »


2017-05-02

Realities behind Australia’s national myths

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by Neil Godfrey

The things they never taught us in school!

Two works I have read recently have been eye-openers for me.

When visiting Macquarie University (Sydney) a few years ago I was struck by a rather untypical statue on campus:

I could never figure out why or what it was about until I saw a photo of the same on the back cover of a book, Selling Sex: A Hidden History of Prostitution by Raelene Frances. Professor Frances’s opening paragraph explains:

In the pages of this book you will meet many women who have sold sex at some stage of their lives. The first is called simply ‘Joy’. For eighteen months in 1995-97 her larger-than-life figure leant against a red door-frame on the corner of Yurong and Stanley Streets in East Sydney. Being a statue, she is not really a sex worker. Or is she? The story of Joy became something of sensation in the mid-1990s, not just because she was said to be the only statue of a prostitute on display in public anywhere in the world, and not just because she personified the seedier side of Sydney. Surrounding the creation ofjoy was a quite extraordinary mystery. . . . 

The story of Joy, as well as the history of her statue, follows.

The above is just introduction to what particularly “struck” me, something that had never crossed my mind in my sheltered innocence and protective armour of national myths. Australian myth-peddlers and exploiters love to play on our belief in the “hard country” in which we have managed through toughness of character to survive. The “outback” is life-threatening and cannot be tamed, but it presence has been a major factor in the moulding of our “national character”. Tough, resourceful, loyal to mates — traits we associate with the pioneers who settled there to plant cattle stations and with those who worked for them. Writers like Henry Lawson helped to grow the myth.

So it comes something of a . . . surprise, let’s say, to read what apparently enticed men from the city to seek adventure and a financial start there and “build our nation”:

A woman like Japanese prostitute Matsuwe Otana would no doubt have had many European and Chinese customers who were engaged in the pastoral industry, as well as the mines and the ports. Drovers or pastoralists in town on business or for a rest welcomed the services provided by the karayuki-san. More commonly, Europeans took Lheir sexual pleasures closer to the stations on which they worked. Here they had access to a plentiful and cheap, if not always willing, supply of Aboriginal women.

The use of Aboriginal women as ‘stud gins’ is a recurring theme across the northern frontiers, from the late nineteenth century in Western Australia and Queensland, and until the 1920s and 1930s in the Northern Territory. . . . .

In the Northern Territory, too, young Aboriginal women were used as ‘bait’ to attract or hold European men to station jobs. Writer Xavier Herbert maintained that the women had to be there: without available women, men would refuse to work on remote stations.

Oh. Suddenly puts the myth in a different light. Best not tell the children.

Then there’s the Anzac myth. read more »


2017-05-01

160 Scriptural Quotations and Allusions in Mark 11-16

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by Neil Godfrey

As an addendum to the previous post I refer here to Howard Clark Kee’s list of scriptural quotations, allusions and influences in the second half of the Gospel of Mark, chapters 11 to 16. Kee points out that

Even a casual glance at the margins of the Nestle-Aland text of Mark will suggest that in the passion section the number of quotations from and allusions to scripture increases sharply as compared with the first ten chapters of the book. When to the categories of quotations and allusions is added the less precise factor of ‘influence’, the links between the Jewish biblical tradition and the later chapters of Mark become even more numerous and potentially significant. . . .

Of the approximately 160 allusions to scripture in Mk 11-16, nearly half are from the prophets (exclusive of Daniel), a fourth are evenly divided between Daniel and the Psalms, slightly fewer than an eighth are from the extra-canonical writings (mostly from what are known as Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha), and the remainder are from Torah, the historical books and the other writings.

(Lee, Howard Clark, 1975. “The Function of Scriptural Quotations and Allusions in Mark 11-16” in E.E. Earle and W.G. Keummel (eds) Jesus and Paulus, Geottingen, Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht. pp. 165-188)

I have set out Kee’s list of quotations and allusions in three posts:

Chapters 11-12

Chapter 13

Chapters 14-16

 

 


A Case for the “Easter” Appearances of Jesus BEFORE the Crucifixion

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by Neil Godfrey

There is an inconsistency in a fundamental argument, or assumption, rather, among critical scholars of Christian origins that has long been bugging me.

The principle was set down by David Friedrich Strauss in the nineteenth century,

when we find details in the life of Jesus evidently sketched after the pattern of these prophecies and prototypes, we cannot but suspect that they are rather mythical than historical. (Life of Jesus, Critically Examined, p. 89)

Now that maxim is frequently and sensibly deployed by critical scholars. It is the reason that Burton Mack  (no doubt there are others, too) denies the historicity of Jesus charging into the Temple and expelling the “traders” there.

It is a fictional theme derived from the scriptural citations. (Mack, Myth of Innocence, p. 292)

Many scholars, however, need the “Temple disturbance” to be historical in order to explain why Jesus was eventually arrested so many jettison the principle to make the narrative work as history. (Paula Fredriksen points out the flaw in their argument.)

David Chumney (whose book, Jesus Eclipsed, I have just completed, and which has many excellent points along with a few unfortunate flaws) makes the point loud and clear:

  • Matthew 8:16-17 (& 11:4-5) tell us that Jesus healed sicknesses in fulfilment of the prophecy in Isaiah 53:4 (Unfortunately once again the Strauss’s criterion is put aside by most scholars who require Jesus to have been a healer in order to explain his “historical following”.)
  • The triumphal entry into Jerusalem is acknowledged by more scholars (e.g. E.P. Sanders, Robert Funk, John Dominic Crossan, David Catchpole) to be a fiction created out of scriptures such as Psalm 118:25-26 and Zechariah 9:9.
  • The magi following the star (Matthew 2:1-12) is based on Numbers 24:17 and Isaiah 60:3, 5-6.
  • Herod’s massacre of the infants (Matthew 2:16-18) is crafted from Exodus 1:15-22 and Jeremiah 31:15.
  • The angel’s announcement of John the Baptist’s birth (to be) (Luke 1:8-20) is woven from Genesis 18:9-15.
  • Mary’s prayer, the “Magnificat” (Luke 1:46-55) comes from 1 Samuel 2:1-10.

Robert Price draws attention to many more: the infant Jesus’ escape into Egypt; Jesus baptism; the 40 days in the wilderness and testing by Satan; the call of the disciples; the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law and her response; Jesus healing of the paralytic; healing the withered hand; the appointing of the twelve disciples; the instructions given to them on how to go out and preach; Jesus calming the storm; the exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac; the raising of Jairus’s daughter; Jesus’ family rejecting him; the execution of John the Baptist; the miraculous feedings of thousands; the walking on the sea; Jesus calling the people to listen to him; Jesus healing the daughter of the woman in the region of Tyre and Sidon; the transfiguration; the rivalry among the disciples for the most prestigious position; the story of the exorcist who did not follow Jesus; . . . . .

And the list could probably be just as long if we itemized each of the “prophesied” details in the Passion narrative. (See Price, “Jesus at the Vanishing Point” in The Historical Jesus: Five Views.)

John Shelby Spong concedes that pretty much everything in the gospels is fiction based a creative reworking of Jewish Scriptures. All except for virtually only one detail: the execution, the martyrdom, of Jesus.

That Jesus was “crucified under Pontius Pilate,” as the Creed affirms, is historically the most stable datum we have concerning Jesus . . . (Joel B. Green, “The Death of Jesus” in Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus, p. 2383)

. . . not that there is the slightest doubt about the fact of Jesus’ crucifixion under Pontius Pilate . . . (John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, p. 375)

There is no doubt both that he was crucified and that after his death he was believed to have been restored to life. (John Shelby Spong, Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes. p. 236)

Yet it is the crucifixion of Jesus that is the MOST chock-full of Old Testament Scriptural allusions and citations.  read more »


2017-04-30

One Difference Between a “True” Biography and a Fictional (Gospel?) Biography

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by Neil Godfrey

With the gospels in mind and thinking of them (for sake of argument) as biographical accounts of Jesus, how can we know if an ancient biography is about a genuinely historical person or if it is about a fictional character?

Let’s leave aside for now the claims of postmodernists who argue that there is no essential difference between histories and novels, between autobiography and fictional works. Enough historians and scholars of literature, at least to my satisfaction, have knocked these arguments down.

Many of us are familiar with the analysis of Richard Burridge that concludes that the gospels are of the same genre as ancient “bioi” (I’ll use the familiar term “biography”). The responses to Burridge’s arguments by Tim and me are collated here.

Before we take up the explanation, let’s look at some extracts from ancient biographers.

Biographer #1

Here is a passage about Socrates by Diogenes Laertius:

It was thought that he [Socrates] helped Euripides to make his plays; hence Mnesimachus writes:

This new play of Euripides is The Phrygians; and
Socrates provides the wood for frying.

And again he calls Euripides “an engine riveted by Socrates.” And Callias in The Captives:

a. Pray why so solemn, why this lofty air?
b. I’ve every right; I’m helped by Socrates.

. . . . . 

According to some authors he was a pupil of Anaxagoras, and also of Damon, as Alexander states in his Successions of Philosophers. When Anaxagoras was condemned, he became a pupil of Archelaus the physicist; Aristoxenus asserts that Archelaus was very fond of him. Duris makes him out to have been a slave and to have been employed on stonework, and the draped figures of the Graces on the Acropolis have by some been attributed to him. . . . . 

He was formidable in public speaking, according to Idomeneus; moreover, as Xenophon tells us, the Thirty forbade him to teach the art of words. And Aristophanes attacks him in his plays for making the worse appear the better reason. For Favorinus in his Miscellaneous History says Socrates and his pupil Aeschines were the first to teach rhetoric; and this is confirmed by Idomeneus in his work on the Socratic circle. . . . .

The significance of the highlighted phrases is that they indicate that the author is writing from the perspective of an outsider attempting to interpret and draw conclusions from and piece together pre-existing sources speaking of the past. The author’s narrative is constrained by the information that has already long been in existence.

Notice especially the caution expressed in the first line: we know that the author is not going to bet his life on the information being true because he tells us that the information is “thought” to be true on the basis of inference from the documents.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that such features in writing are a foolproof indicator of the factualness or genuine historicity of the subject. Obviously such phrases can be invented — and sometimes are invented — for the sake of creating verisimilitude for a fictional narrative. And such a presentation alone does not tell us with complete certainty that the person found in the sources was truly historical.

What we can establish from these literary indicators, however, is that on the face of it the author presents his work as an effort to relay to readers what is purported to be historical; furthermore, the author opens up to readers the means by which they can verify what he writes.

As I wrote in another post recently,

In her book Autobiographical Acts, Bruss formulates a number of interrelated “rules” . . . The rule that applies to this communication process on the author’s side reads:

“Whether or not what is reported can be discredited, . . . the autobiographer purports to believe in what he asserts.”

On the reader’s side, the rule-abiding expectation that the report is true implies a freedom to “check up” on its accuracy by way of appropriate verification procedures. 

In this perspective, the truth claim or autobiography in no sense implies the actual truth of an autobiographer’s statement. (Dorrit Cohn, 1999, The Distinction of Fiction, p. 31, italics original, my formatting)

So it is worthwhile asking why we find no comparable expressions in the earliest gospels, the Gospels of Mark and Matthew. I should say “any of the canonical gospels” since the prologue to Luke and the eyewitness claims in John create special problems that have been discussed in other posts. Moreover, we will see that all four canonical gospels, on the contrary, are replete with perspectives and expressions that indicate fiction.

Biographer #2

read more »


2017-04-27

Did the Search for Meaning in Scriptures Really Lead to the Gospel Narratives?

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by Neil Godfrey

To some extent, the followers of Jesus knew the basic facts: he was crucified by the authority of Pontius Pilate (with the complicity of the Jewish leadership?) outside the city of Jerusalem around the time of the Passover. Yet what was the meaning of those events? As Koester has noted, that question led the followers of Jesus back to the Scriptures, to familiar passages that seemed to describe some comparable situation. For example, according to Nils Dahl, “[E]arly Christians read Psalm 22, Psalm 69, and other psalms of lamentation, probably also Isaiah 53, as accounts of the passion of Jesus before there existed any written passion story.” 21 As Crossan explains, these believers did not read such passages “as referring exclusively and individually to Jesus but rather… to their original referents and to Jesus now as well.” 22 Thus, in addition to the examples cited by Dahl, one passage that helped Jesus’ followers make sense of what had happened was this verse from the Psalms: “The rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and his anointed” (2: 2). Another such passage— one that seemed to include what had happened to Jesus’ followers— was a verse from Zechariah: “Strike the shepherd, that the sheep may be scattered” (13: 7b). And after reports of the resurrection, Jesus’ followers saw new significance in this verse from Hosea: “After two days [the LORD] will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up” (6: 2). According to Crossan, these “passion prophecies” led the first generation of Christians to develop the belief that Jesus’ suffering and subsequent vindication had all been part of God’s plan.

Chumney, David. Jesus Eclipsed: How Searching the Scriptures Got in the Way of Recounting the Facts (Kindle Locations 1608-1621). Kindle Edition.

A new book titled Jesus Eclipsed has been introduced by its author, David Chumney, over three posts on John Loftus’s Debunking Christianity site (part 1, part 2, part 3). I have been reading both the book and David’s introductory blog posts and may discuss the work in more detail later. For now I can comment that Chumney is strongly opposed to mythicism (sometimes to the point of misrepresentation) even though his arguments are in all respects — except for two details — found at length in mythicist works by Robert Price, Richard Carrier and Earl Doherty. The two details on which he differs are that Josephus (his James passage) and Paul (his meeting with James) provide sufficient evidence to establish the historicity of Jesus. Unfortunately I think Chumney unwittingly slips into arguing from the same assumptions and with the same circularity as other New Testament scholars, perhaps not surprisingly given that Chumney has the same background in seminary studies. But here I address primarily a point that occurred to me just now as I read his sixth chapter.

Most readers will be familiar with the standard scholarly explanation for the passion narrative in the gospels being infused with allusions to “Old Testament”. The disciples were so stunned by the unexpected turn of events, it is said, that they turned to the scriptures to find some means of understanding the death of Jesus and their subsequent “Easter experience”. The passage by Chumney above sums up the idea.

The question that occurred to me this time on reflecting on this explanation for the scriptural echoes throughout the passion narrative was,

“But didn’t the scriptures provide a ready set of answers for exactly the sort of demise Jesus had met? Why were those traditional explanations apparently inadequate?”

We know the Bible and extra canonical Second Temple writings were riddled with laments and praise for the righteous one who suffers unjustly. Unjust suffering, persecution, martyrdom — such was the fate of the righteous man ever since Abel and on right through Job, the Psalms and to the Maccabees. Jewish scribes wrote plenty to remind readers of this “fact of life” and to console them, assuring them that God found their blood “precious in his sight”.

So why the need to take from Psalm 22 the line that spoke of dividing garments and casting lots for them? How did that passage add to the meaning of what had happened?

Did that really happen? Chumney’s argument is correct: he turns back to the nineteenth century and David Strauss’s point in The Life of Jesus:

 “[W]hen we find details in the life of Jesus evidently sketched after the pattern of prophecies and prototypes, we cannot but suspect that they are rather mythical than historical.”

But the Psalm 22:18,

They divide my clothes among them
and cast lots for my garment.

I suggest, would have added no more meaning to their experience of loss than 22:17, 20-21

All my bones are on display;
. . . . .

Deliver me from the sword,
my precious life from the power of the dogs.

Rescue me from the mouth of the lions;
save me from the horns of the wild oxen.

None of those lines has any association with a death by crucifixion and they are ignored by the evangelists who composed the passion narratives. Are we to infer that the disciples of Jesus did find deeper meaning for the death of Jesus in verse 18? If so, how could that be?

The obvious answer, of course, is that the disciples were reminded of that passage in Psalms when they learned from eyewitnesses that the clothes of Jesus were indeed taken by the soldiers.

Do we have a problem here?

But if that is what inspired the disciples to find meaning in Psalm 22:18 we run into a problem. read more »


2017-04-26

“No reason to doubt . . .”? Fine, but that’s no reason to stop critical thinking

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by Neil Godfrey

One of the most common refrains in the scholarly output of scholars dedicated to the study of the historical Jesus and Christian origins is that “there is no reason to doubt” that Jesus or some other gospel figure said or did such and such. That is supposed to shut down critical inquiry, it seems. If there is “no reason to doubt” a gospel passage then it is implied that any doubt must be a product of a hostile attitude or at least an unfair scepticism. When a reputable scholar declares “no reason to doubt” what we read in the Gospels a less credentialed reader may feel that the matter is settled. “No reason to doubt X” becomes “we should accept X as historically true”.

Lest you have any doubts about the above take a look at a few examples I was able to find within minutes by grabbing a few titles almost at random:

[T]he prophet of Nazareth [Jesus] himself belonged to the house of David. There seems no reason to doubt the particulars about this which are given by the first two evangelists and Paul.

— James Dunn and Scot McKnight, The Historical Jesus in Recent Research, p. 9

There is no good reason to doubt that Jesus came under such criticism already during his period of success and popularity in Galilee. The Gospel pictures offered in Mark 2 and 7 are at this point wholly plausible and should not be lightly discarded. 

— James Dunn and Scot McKnight, The Historical Jesus in Recent Research, p. 484

There is no reason to doubt that it was . . . the later slow acceptance of Mark as a fixed and authoritative text which led to the death of oral traditions about Jesus’.

— James Dunn, Jesus Remembered: Christianity in the Making, p. 202

That is to say, there is no reason to doubt that Jesus was actually baptized by John; but the account of the heaven(s) being opened, the Spirit descending as a dove, and the heavenly voice, are all evidence of mythical elaboration.

— James Dunn, Jesus Remembered: Christianity in the Making, p. 374

We have also already observed that the traditions of both the Baptist’s and Jesus’ preaching seem to have been much influenced by reflection on Isaiah’s prophecies, and there is no reason to doubt that both preachers were themselves influenced by their own knowledge of Isaiah.

— James Dunn, Jesus Remembered: Christianity in the Making, p. 494

Three features stand out in this catalogue, shared by Mark and Q, as also by the fuller material in Luke: (1) the term ‘sinner …’ is remembered as regularly used in criticism against Jesus, (2) the term ‘sinner’ is regularly associated with ‘toll-collector’, and (3) the criticism is most often levelled against Jesus for dining with such people. There is no reason to doubt that all three features are well rooted in the earliest memories of Jesus’ mission, as is generally agreed.

— James Dunn, Jesus Remembered: Christianity in the Making, p. 528

But there is no good reason to doubt the tradition that Pilate took the opportunity afforded him to follow a quasi-judicial procedure. . . 

— James Dunn, Jesus Remembered: Christianity in the Making, p. 629

[T]here is no good reason to doubt the basic facts of Jesus’ arrest by Jewish Temple police and subsequent hearing before a council convened by the high priest Caiaphas for the purpose.

— James Dunn, Jesus Remembered: Christianity in the Making, p. 784

Despite uncertainties about the extent of tradition which Paul received, there is no reason to doubt that this information was communicated to Paul as part of his introductory catechesis.

— James Dunn, Jesus Remembered: Christianity in the Making, p. 855

Where there is no such reason to doubt, however, Williamson accepts Josephus in whole and part — events, motives, and moral assessments.

— Steve Mason, speaking of G.A. Williamson, “The Writings of Josephus: Their Significance for New Testament Study”  in Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus, p. 1655

Also, on the basis of what John writes, there is no reason to doubt that he understands Joseph to be Jesus’ natural, biological father. 

— D. Moody Smith, “Jesus Tradition in the Gospel of John” in Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus, p. 2011

Sanders is at pains to stress that there is not, in principle, any reason to doubt that Jesus could also think that already during his ministry the Kingdom was manifest: Jesus is not a systematic thinker with a dualistic apocalyptic theology. 

— Crispin Fletcher-Louis speaking of E.P. Sanders, “Jesus and Apocalypticism” in Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus, p. 2891

Certainly, as the place of Peter, his brother Andrew, and of Philip, whose home was Bethsaida, according to John 1:44 and 12:21, . . . . . 83

83 There is no reason to doubt this information; on the contrary, only the names of these three disciples of Jesus have a Greek association: “Philip” (cf. also John 12:20-22) and “Andrew” are Greek names; the name of the brother of Andrew, “Simon,” is also often found among Greeks.

Heinz-Wolfgang Kuhn in Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus, p. 2995

Although the evangelists present this story in a stylized form which is adapted to their own situation, I see no reason to doubt that they are basically relating an event from the life of the historical Jesus.

— Heinz Giesen, “Poverty and Wealth in Jesus and the Jesus Tradition” in Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus, p. 3270

There is no reason to doubt that Jesus grew up in and around the carpenter’s shop of his father at Nazareth. 

— James M. Robinson, The Gospel of Jesus, p. 96

There is in any case no reason to doubt the depiction of John as an eschatological preacher.

— E.P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, p. 92

In Josephus’ version the Baptist preached ‘righteousness’ and ‘piety’. . . . Josephus wrote in Greek, and these two words were used very widely by Greek-speaking Jews to summarize their religion. There is no reason to doubt that John stressed both.

— E.P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus, p. 92

Although this school debate does not appear to have been preserved in its original form, there is no reason to doubt that it represents an actual debate, because if it had been invented (i.e. mis-remembered) at a later date we would expect the Hillelite position to conform to the accepted view here. 

— David Intone-Brewer, “Rabbinic Writings in New Testament Research” in Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus p. 1696

There is no good reason to doubt that this Simon really was a Pharisee.

— N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, p. 192

It has often been pointed out that the difference in pronunciation between Chrestus and Christus would be minimal in this period, and there is no good reason to doubt that what we have here is a garbled report of disturbances within the large Jewish community in Rome, brought about by the presence within that community of some who claimed that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah.

— N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, p. 355

The so-called ‘triumphal entry’ was thus clearly messianic. This meaning is somewhat laboured by the evangelists, particularly Matthew, but is not for that reason to be denied to the original incident. All that we know of Jewish crowds at Passover-time in this period makes their reaction, in all the accounts, thoroughly comprehensible: they praise their god for the arrival, at last, of the true king. What precisely they meant by this is difficult to assess; that they thought it and said it, there is no good reason to doubt

— N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, p. 491

Virtually all scholars agree that seven of the Pauline letters are authentic . . . These seven cohere well together and appear stylistically, theologically, and in most every other way to be by the same person. They all claim to be written by Paul. There is scarce reason to doubt that they actually were written by Paul.

— Bart Ehrman, Forged, p. 106

These passages, taken together, clearly stand behind the warnings of Mark 13. Granted our whole argument thus far, there is no reason to doubt that they were used in this way by Jesus himself.

— N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, p. 512

There seems to be no reason to doubt that Jesus spent the last week of his life in Jerusalem looking ahead to the celebration of the Passover feast.

— Bart Ehrman, https://ehrmanblog.org/the-memory-of-jesus-triumphal-entry/

Polycarp was not eager to be martyred for his faith. When the authorities decide to arrest him, he goes into hiding, at the encouragement of his parishioners. On the other hand, he refuses to be intimidated and makes no serious attempt to resist the forces that want him dead, principally the mobs in town who evidently see Christians as a nuisance and social disease, and who want to be rid of them and, particularly, their cherished leader. Rather than stay on the run, Polycarp allows himself to be captured in a farmhouse in the countryside. And when taken into the arena and threatened with death, rather than defend himself, he stoutly refuses to do what is required: deny Christ and make an offering for the emperor. He is threatened with torture and wild beasts, but nothing fazes him. The governor orders his death by burning at the stake, and the sentence is immediately carried out.

As I have indicated, the account appears to be written by an eyewitness, and there is no reason to doubt that in its essentials it is accurate. 

— Bart Ehrman, Lost Christianities, p. 139

There is no reason to doubt the entire passage, just the last few words.

— Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist, p. 123

We see that, while there are vague commonalities between the Jesus story and ancient stories of gods surviving death, hero myths, and legends surrounding other historical figures, none of these commonalities gives us reason to doubt that the Jesus story is substantially rooted in history.

— Paul R. Eddy and Gregory Boyd, Lord or Legend? Wrestling with the Jesus Dilemma, p. 62

One might be forgiven for suspecting that “no reason to doubt” can too easily become a cop out for failure to present an evidence based argument. Maybe it can serve as a cover for assumptions that have been taken for granted and never seriously examined, or for a lazy and naive reading of primary sources.

But let’s not be overly harsh. If I read that Jesus walked on water and rose from the dead I think I am entitled to have “reasons to doubt” those stories. But if I read that Jesus taught people to be kind to others or expressed anger at the hypocrisy of authorities I confess I see no reason to doubt such accounts. They are plausible enough narratives of the sorts of sentiments many people express.

If, however, I am wanting to dig into the origins of the gospels and Christian teachings then the fact that I see “no reason to doubt” certain episodes becomes quite irrelevant.

Compare: If I greet a friend and ask how he is I will probably have no reason to doubt him when he says “Fine, just a little tired today.” But if I were his doctor I would want to know why he is tired and his answer may lead me to do undertake tests. I would have no reason to doubt that otherwise he feels quite “fine” but that will not be my primary concern and given results of tests I may consider his sense of well-being (which I will not doubt) as beside the point.

Two Rules: One for the author, one for the reader

read more »


2017-04-24

If there is no God, is murder wrong?

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by Neil Godfrey

Michael Shermer (head of The Skeptics Society and whose book Why People Believe Weird Things I liked; some of its arguments actually apply to many Christian believers, academics included) has posted a video challenging the fundamentalist/conservative Christian claim that without God there is no secure basis for morality.

Dennis Prager, someone better known to US readers, posted the usual dogmatic nonsense @ ‘If There Is No God, Then Murder Isn’t Wrong’.  (See below for the video)

Now Shermer has responded with – ‘If There Is No God, Is Murder Wrong? He pretty much knocks out the argument with his first question or point one of four. Happily both videos are short.


Jesus: Mything in Action

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by Neil Godfrey

David Fitzgerald, author of Nailed: Ten Christian Myths that show Jesus Never Existed at All, has a new work out in three volumes:

Jesus: Mything in Action

A few of the 17 blurb responses . . . .

Richard Carrier’s comment:

A thorough and entertaining survey of what’s wrong with secular scholarship on Jesus, why most scholarship on Jesus isn’t really secular, and why the possibility that Jesus was mythical needs to be taken seriously. Every Jesus-myth enthusiast will want to read and reference this one. His demonstration that an alarming number of Jesus scholars are actually contractually required to deny mythicism is alone worth the price of admission. His also revealing the embarrassing truth of how historicist scholars contrive even more flawed or ridiculous theories than mythicists is just gravy.

—Richard C. Carrier, Ph.D., author of On the Historicity of Jesus

Co-blogger Tim Widowfield’s comment:

Jesus: Mything in Action, David Fitzgerald’s follow-up to Nailed, asks piercing questions that won’t go away. If Christianity began with a historical Jesus, then where is he? Why is he a no-show in every written work outside of the gospels? And if we can trace the literary and theological antecedents of every gospel story, is the historical Jesus even necessary? David takes us on a gripping journey through time to show where the myths of the heavenly Christ as well as the legends of the historical Jesus came from. But no matter where or when we look, Jesus of Nazareth himself is the man who wasn’t there. Don’t myth it!

—Tim Widowfield of Vridar.org

Frank Zindler’s comment:

Take your book off the shelf, Tom Aquinas, your Summa Theologica is being replaced by David Fitzgerald’s Summa Mythologica! Jesus: Mything in Action is the most nearly exhaustive synthesis of evidence indicating the non-historicity of Jesus of Nazareth ever written. Best of all, it’s written in breezy English prose—not the labyrinthine Latinate crime so often committed when discussing “sacred subjects.” The organizational logic of the book is impressive; it reminds me of Euclid’s Elements. Historical Jesus scholars should not be fooled by the ease with which this book can be read by the educated layperson: this book is a must-read for Jesus specialists also Mything in Action is a milestone along the long path to progress in Mythicist studies.

—Frank R. Zindler, American Atheist Press

And my own little addition to the blurb. . . .

Brilliant, very readable and comprehensive. A wideranging discussion of the evidence for Jesus demonstrating that it is exactly what we should expect if Jesus began not as a historical figure but as a theological and literary invention. David Fitzgerald’s opening chapters are especially noteworthy as a wonderful breath of fresh air for anyone who has read the diatribes of scholars hostile to the Christ Myth hypothesis. Partly with the assistance of some original research Fitzgerald exposes just how self-interested, strained and nonsensical those attacks have been.

—Neil Godfrey of Vridar.org

-o-

Jesus: Mything in Action Volume 1

Mything in Action, vol. I (chapters 1 – 12) looks at the myths of Jesus Mythicism: what it is and isn’t; what biblical scholars are saying about it (and why); and examines our oldest “biographical” source for Jesus – the allegorical story we know as the Gospel of Mark.

-o-

Jesus: Mything in Action Volume 2

Mything in Action, vol. II (chapters 13 – 18) discusses the changing Jesus from even before the earliest Christians, to Paul, to the Book of Hebrews, to the Gospels and beyond: the construction (and deconstruction) of the Gospels; how Jesus is presented in the rest of the New Testament; and examines the historical sources for Jesus outside of the Bible.

-o-

Jesus: Mything in Action Volume 3

Mything in Action, vol. III (chapters 19 – 25) presents a bold thought experiment: “The Gospel According to H.G. Wells,”  a multi-chapter time travel expedition through the origins and evolution of Christianity.


2017-04-20

Continuing a case for an early Jewish belief in a slain messiah

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by Neil Godfrey

The second of the three earliest references to the slain Messiah ben Joseph is a few lines further on in the same Talmud tractate, Sukkah 52a

Our rabbis taught: The Holy One, blessed be he, will say to Messiah ben David (May he reveal himself speedily in our days!), “Ask of me anything and I will give it to you,” as it is said, “I will tell of the decree [of the Lord],” etc. “This day I have begotten you. Ask of me and I will give you the nations for your inheritance” (Ps. 2). But when he will see that Messiah ben Joseph is slain, he will say to him, “Lord of the universe, I ask of you only life.”

Here the Messiah from the tribe of Joseph has been slain at some point towards the end time, but there is another Messiah involved in the drama, one who is descended from David who expresses concern over the death of his forerunner. We are not told how or why nor by whom the Messiah ben Joseph was killed. Readers or those who knew of this teaching of the rabbis presumably knew the details so there was no need to spell them out.

Interestingly the Messiah ben David in this passage has not till now made his mark in the end-time drama and in other passages (outside Sukkah 52a) his first act on his appearance is to forgo invitations to ask great things for himself and to request, instead, the resurrection of Messiah ben Joseph. In the Suk 52a, however, it appears that the sight of the dead Messiah ben Joseph stirs the Messiah ben David to ask for eternal life for himself — to which God replies that he already has eternal life (he had been living for ages in Rome unrecognised before the last days).

There are two clues in this passage that date the teaching to some time prior to 200 CE.

  1. The passage is written in Hebrew. See the previous post for the relevance of this: notice the Tannaitic period.
  2. The passage is introduced by the vague reference, “our rabbis taught” — instead of by a specifically named rabbi. Such an anonymous introductory formula is said to be typical of passages deriving from the Tannaitic period (the first two centuries of the current era) or earlier.

The last of the earliest three references to Messiah ben Joseph is from the same tractate, Sukkah 52b:

“And the Lord showed me four craftsmen” (Zech. 2.3). Who are these [four craftsmen]? Rav Hana bar Bizna said in the name of Rav Simeon Hasida: “Messiah ben David, Messiah ben Joseph, Elijah, and the Righteous Priest.”

This passage is not so easy to date on internal evidence though it is recorded as part of the later Aromaic tradition. The initial question is in Aramaic and the “ben” (son of) is Hebrew (rather than the Aramaic “bar”). External evidence helps more, says Mitchell. There are six other places where the “four craftsmen” appear, so let’s see how Mitchell analyses these variants to make an assessment on the date of the origin of the saying.

Note that there are three passages in Hebrew (that is, from the pre 200 CE Tannaitic period) and they all contain the same names in the same form:

  • Elijah
  • The King Messiah
  • Melchizedek
  • The War Messiah

Genesis Rabbah 99:2: “the War Messiah, who will be descended from Joseph;”

Midr. Tanhuma vol. I, p. 103a (§11.3): “in the age to come a War Messiah is going to arise from Joseph;”

Numbers Rabbah 14:1: “the War Messiah who comes from Ephraim;” [Ephraim is a son of Joseph]

Aggadat Bereshit, pereq 63 (A. Jellinek, Bet ha-Midrash [BHM], vol. IV, p. 87 [Leipzig, 1853–1877; photog. repr. Jerusalem, 1967]); “a War Messiah will arise from Joseph;”

Kuntres Acharon §20 to Yalkut Shimoni on the Pentateuch (BHM, vol. VI, p. 81): “a War Messiah is going to arise from Joseph;”

Gen.R. 75:6 applies Moses’ blessing on Joseph (Deut. 33:17) to the War Messiah.

The King Messiah of the early period (in Hebrew, before 200 CE) can be aligned with Messiah ben David that appear in what can be taken on balance as later texts (in Amorite, post 200 CE).

Since in biblical texts (Genesis 14:18-20 and Psalm 110:4) Melchizedek is known to be a priest, we can match the early reference to Melchizedek to the Righteous Priest in the later texts.

See the side box for the evidence that leads us to equate the War Messiah with Messiah ben Joseph.

Mitchell finds three key issues for dating the origin of the above third Messiah son of Joseph reference”: the Righteous Priest, the names in which the tradition is transmitted and the Qumran text 4Q175.

The Righteous Priest 

The prominence given to the Righteous Priest alongside Messiah ben Joseph as one of the Four Craftsmen is an indicator of pre-Christian era origins of the teaching: Mitchell’s argument is as follows.

We saw in The Priestly Messiah and the Royal Messiah the Jewish belief in a Priest Messiah or an end-time priestly deliverer. Biblical passages on Melchizedek and the anointed priestly companion, Joshua ben Jehozadak, to the Davidic prince Zerubbabel in the Book of Zechariah may provide some foundation for a belief in a priestly saviour, but post-biblical writings bring such a figure into sharper focus. Here we are entering the Hasmonean era, the period following the Maccabean revolt, or the Second Temple era.

The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs (see Priestly and Royal Messiahs) sets up a priest messiah from the tribe of Levi as the foremost messianic figure without any rival from the line of David. The Qumran literature (Dead Sea Scrolls) likewise contains passages that promote the priestly messiah, sometimes as superior to the Davidic messiah (1QSa 2.14-20).

If the priestly deliverer was a pre-eminent figure in the Hasmonean era, after Christianity emerged Jewish writings lost interest in him.

 

The priestly Messiah therefore enjoys pre-eminence in Hasmonean times. But at the turn of the era, when Judaism and Christianity diverge, although he is taken up by Christianity and Gnosticism, particularly as Melchizedek, Judaism knows him no more. The only other talmudic reference to Melchizedek, apart from this one in B. Suk. 52b, derogates the priesthood of the Genesis figure (B. Ned. 32b). Later midrashim feature the other “craftsmen” — ben David, ben Joseph and Elijah — with great frequency, but have no place for the priest. . . . 

It therefore seems that the priestly messiah’s popularity rose with the Hasmonean dynasty who, keen to beget messianic acclaim, took Melchizedek’s title “Priest of El Elyon” from Gen. 14:18. But when their power was eclipsed and priestly status fell a century later with the Temple, the Priest Messiah, like his brothers, passed into obscurity, leaving only his former renown lingering among the “Four Craftsmen.” So the Righteous Priest’s presence among the “Four Craftsmen” must date from a time when he was still held in honor, that is, the Temple period. (Mitchell, p. 87f)

Variant source names

The Tannaitic texts cite relatively early names as the conveyors of the tradition. One source dates Rabbi Isaac to around 140 to 165 CE. The Rabbi Eleazar who is named in one of the early texts is dated even earlier, around 80 to 120 CE.

The names listed as sources for the four craftsmen tradition in the later Amoraic texts, Simeon Hasida and Hana bar Bizna, are dated to the late second and early third centuries.

Now the fairly short time-gap between these teachers hardly allows for the divergence between them. The different variants therefore derive from an earlier common source. In that case, we are taken back to the period before Isaac — or Eleazar– and, once again, find ourselves near the Temple era. (p. 88)

Qumran 4Q175 and a Joshua Messiah read more »


2017-04-19

How Early Did Some Jews Believe in a Slain Messiah son of Joseph?

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by Neil Godfrey

If you are more interested in

  • why a second messiah in the first place? and
  • why the tribe of Joseph for a second messiah?

skip to the end of this post where I cite one of several explanations.

I don’t know the answer to the question in the title (in part because much depends upon how we define and understand the origins of “Christianity”) but I can present here one argument for the possibility that there was a belief among various Judeans prior to the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE that a future messiah was destined to be killed. (This post goes beyond previous posts addressing messianic-like interpretations of the Suffering Servant passage in Isaiah 53 that we find in Daniel and the Enoch literature and builds upon other earlier posts addressing the evidence in later rabbinic and other Jewish writings.)

We focus here on a 2005 article by David C. Mitchell in Review of Rabbinic Judaism, “Rabbi Dosa and the Rabbis Differ: Messiah Ben Joseph in the Babylonian Talmud“. I find a number of aspects of the article questionable, but nonetheless Mitchell does present a somewhat technical argument in support of the possibility of a pre-Christian belief in a slain messiah.

Recall that in my recent post, Suffering and Dying Messiahs: Typically Jewish Beliefs, we read a Jewish narrative from the early 600s CE describing a Messiah son of Joseph being slain in battle against end-time forces of evil. The earliest surviving reference to the Messiah ben (=son of) Joseph is in the Talmud. If you are like me your first reaction to hearing that will be “How can writings up to several centuries into the Christian era possibly be used as reliable sources for events and ideas in first century Palestine?” But also if you are like me you will be at least open to hearing the case being made. So here it is as I understand it.

 

Talmud: Rabbinic writings made up primarily of two parts, the Mishnah and the Gemara.

The Mishnah purports to be the written collection of oral traditions of rabbinic debates and teachings. The Mishnah was completed around 200 CE.

The Gemara is rabbinic commentary on the Mishnah and is said to have been composed between 200 CE to 450 CE.

There are two broad chronological eras represented in the Talmud: the Tannaitic and the Amoraic.

The Tannaim is identified by Hebrew text and represents ideas prior and up to 200 CE.

The Amoraim is identified by Aramaic text and represents the period subsequent to 200 CE.

In the Mishnah we sometimes read both Hebrew and Aramaic text in the one section. We understand that the Aramaic text has been added by rabbis post 200 CE to fill out or clarify the earlier Hebrew account.

It will help to know some important terms relating to the Talmud. I explain these (hopefully not misleadingly simplified) in the side box.

The earliest known references to Messiah ben Joseph are found in a section (or tractate) called Sukkah. (Scroll through the Talmud page at http://www.halakhah.com to see where it sits in the broader collection.) The Sukkah tractate relates to the Feast of Tabernacles (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sukkot).

I copy the first of these passages, Sukkoth 52a, as Mitchell himself sets it out, with the later Aramaic passages in italics, but I have added bolding to make it clearer:

“And the land shall mourn family by family apart. The family of the house of David apart and their women apart” (Zech. 12:12). They said: Is not this an a fortiori conclusion? In the age to come, when they are busy mourning and no evil inclination rules them, the Torah says, “the men apart and the women apart.” How much more so now when they are busy rejoicing and the evil inclination rules them. What is the cause of this mourning? Rabbi Dosa and the rabbis differ. One says: “For Messiah ben Joseph who is slain;” and the other says: “For the evil inclination which is slain.” It is well according to him who says, “For Messiah ben Joseph who is slain,” for this is what is written, “And they shall look upon me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him like the mourning for an only son” (Zech. 12:10); but according to him who says, “The evil inclination which is slain:” Is this an occasion for mourning? Is it not an occasion for rejoicing rather than weeping?

I understand from Mitchell’s discussion that the highlighted words above are translations of Aramaic text. The remainder is rendered from Hebrew.

Accordingly we have in this section of Mishnah, typically dated prior to 200 CE, later rabbinic additions in Aramaic. But the Aramaic text is quoting references to Messiah ben Joseph that are in Hebrew text.

Mitchell argues that the Aramaic script is the work of Amoraic (post 200 CE) rabbis commenting on a tradition from the Tannaitic era (prior to 200 CE). He disagrees with another scholar (Joseph Klausner) who believed we should interpret the passage as indicating that the tradition of Messiah ben Joseph itself originated some time in the later Tannaitic era (200-450 CE).

Let’s back up a little. Let’s see what light the broader context might be able to shed on the question of dating.

Immediately prior the section mentioning Messiah ben Joseph we read about worshipers at the end of the first day of the Feast going down to the Court of Women at the Temple where a significant change is encountered: read more »


2017-04-17

How Do People Respond to the Killing of Their Messiah?

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by Neil Godfrey

Entrance into an excavated cave used by Bar Kokhba’s rebels, Khirbet Midras — From Wikipedia

We know the story of how Christianity started. The scholarly explanation is essentially a paraphrase of the narratives we read in the Gospels and Acts. The disciples had been fully expecting Jesus to take charge and begin to drive out the Romans when he went to Jerusalem so were dismayed when he let himself by captured and crucified instead. Something happened in the ensuing days, something inexplicable, or at least beyond historical inquiry: the disciples came to believe that Jesus was still alive and were accordingly inspired to preach the good news of Jesus who really was the Christ (Messiah), that he died and rose again, etc.

(Funny that they never say the disciples “came to believe he had been crucified” because according to the gospels they all fled the scene, were not present at his trial and had no better word than the humble witness of a few ladies who claimed to have seen Jesus both crucified and resurrected.)

Anyway, as the conventional explanation goes, the disciples were so confused at first by the demise of their teacher and were struggling to make sense of their subsequent feelings that they delved into the scriptures for answers. How could the one they so believed was the messiah or christ be crucified?

Until then it had been inconceivable for any Jew to interpret those scriptures in a way that produced a messiah destined to suffer and die. The scriptures said the messiah would overthrow Israel’s enemies and establish the rule of God on earth. Nonetheless, the disciples were so moved by their recent trauma that they finally found a way to convince themselves they had been right all along: Jesus really was the Christ and he really did come alive again after his crucifixion. So cogent were their explanations of the scriptures that many others who heard them preach also believed.

Such a radical reinterpretation of the messiah and the scriptural grounds for its support was so scandalous to most other Jews and the Jewish authorities that they gave them a hard time, stoning them, whipping them, martyring them, and so forth. And that’s how Christianity and the New Testament writings were born.

So what do we make of the responses of the followers of another would-be messiah who was killed a century later?

There was a second Jewish rebellion against Rome in the early 130s led by Bar Kochba. Apparently many believed he was the messiah doing just what a messiah was supposed to do — fight Romans. There was a famous rabbi named Akiba (or Akiva) who is said to have even pronounced his messiahship and fulfilment of prophecies from the Pentateuch. But he was killed, too.

Now it happens that at some point (we don’t know when with any precision, but the first signs of it indicate it was some time within the first couple of centuries of the Christian era) a belief in a messiah who was to die in battle emerged among Jews. How do we explain the emergence of belief in a dying messiah among the Jews? Some have suggested the idea grew out of the experiences of the followers of Bar Kochba and was a response to their great disappointment when he failed.

It might be interesting for some to have a look at what a scholar from the Department of Hebrew Literature at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University had to say in an article published in 1975. He is outlining the views of some of his peers. It is interesting to compare the explanations with the conventional one for the emergence of the Christian myth.

J. Klausner categorically rejects the claim that the figure of the Messiah who  would be killed in battle came into being as a result of the exegesis of Zech 12:10 (and other texts), as Dalman, and others, had proposed; in his opinion, it is not through exegesis that important, new ideas or doctrines are created. Nor does he accept the hypothesis of Jacob Levy, that the concept of the Messiah ben Ephraim was created after the failure of the Bar Kokhba revolt in order to make it possible to preserve the messianic faith in spite of this disaster and also in order “to save the honour of R. Akiva,” who had publicly proclaimed him the Messiah; by making Bar Kokhba, in the guise of Messiah ben Joseph, the forerunner of the “real” Messiah, his defeat could be accepted without denying his messianic function altogether. Klausner rejects this “rationalistic” view, because “articles of creed” are not created intentionally ad hoc, but originate in “deep inner needs” of the people. Moreover, the disappointment after Bar Kokhba’s defeat was so immense, as to make it inconceivable that the people (or the sages) should have continued to look upon him as a genuine messianic figure; and, indeed, there is no indication that this was the case. . . .  (Heinemann, Joseph. 1975. “The Messiah of Ephraim and the Premature Exodus of the Tribe of Ephraim”. Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 8, No. 1. p. 2)

Does the logic imply that Christianity began because the disciples were less disappointed in Jesus? But would we not expect a lesser disappointment to lead to disciples packing up everything and going back to their former routines?

Or do scholars really expect us to believe that there was some inexplicable “easter event” that was responsible for Christianity?

 

 

 


2017-04-16

The Priestly Messiah and the Royal Messiah

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by Neil Godfrey

In the previous post we looked at ancient Jewish concepts of multiple messiahs, each with a distinctive role. There was Davidic messiah who for most of existence lives like a destitute vagabond or beggar, despised, rejected and unrecognized in the streets of “Rome”.  Then there was a messiah from the tribe of Joseph who emerged as a warrior to lead Israel in a battle against the ultimate forces of evil but who was killed in that battle. His death was the cue for the Davidic messiah to emerge from obscurity and call upon God for the resurrection of the fallen messiah.

We also saw other messiahs, one from the tribe of Levi or family of Aaron, who was a priest-messiah. Associated with these messiahs was a prophet, Elijah.

We looked at some reasons for believing such ideas were familiar (if not unanimously embraced) by Jews prior to the fall of the Temple in 70 CE. In a future post I will look at additional evidence for assigning such beliefs as early as the period from 200 BCE to 70 CE. I will also address the midrashic processes by which Second Temple era Jews could well have arrived at such characters and scenarios according to Daniel Boyarin.

And most interesting of all, at least for me, I will post on how all of these ideas relate to what we read in the Gospel of Mark about the figure of Jesus and the reason for his crucifixion.

But in this post we will look at other types of messiahs, or at least one other: the priest-messiah and his subordinate companion (political) messiah from Israel or Joseph.  read more »